Last month, I attended PI Apparel 2015 in New York City held at the Union League Club. PI Apparel brings together the fashion, apparel and footwear industry to discuss the challenges and opportunities offered by modern technology in the continuous improvement and streamlining of product lifecycles and merchandise planning. Attendees are leading brands, retailers, technology providers and thought leaders who share their experiences to learn how other companies have addressed technology and implementations. As you might have guessed, “PI” stands for product innovation. However, I was pleasantly surprised regarding the immense focus on “people” which lead me to jokingly rename the event “People Innovation.”

People 

In the sessions I attended, the presenters and audiences were aligned that one must take the time to select the best* solution and define new processes for a company. Having consensus on this, the discussion typically moved on to implementation stories; more head nods, agreement and chuckles at ever-familiar project struggles. But it was the next part of the discussion that perked my change management ears. The same questions were consistently asked:
– How do you get people to adopt?
– How important is leadership support and buy-in?
– How do you convince people that the undertaking is the right decision?
– How do you transition people from one process and / or system to a new one?
– What happens when or if people refuse to use the new system or perform the processes?

I was so excited to hear these questions being asked because the “People” aspect of a project sometimes tends to fall to the wayside or is not a central focus when critical project decisions are made. For any successful organizational transformation, People, Process and Technology are the three crucial elements. However, many times they do not get equal positioning. Hearing brands and retailers ask these questions, regardless if they were pre-implementation, post-implementation or currently in the midst, confirms the importance of the “People” element. I spent two days discussing these questions with those who have years of anecdotal experiences and we could have gone on for much longer. For the sake of time, I would like to share my high-level thoughts:

  • Create the right culture beforehand. This means to actively communicate, know your audience and provide the right support. For some, this means open office hours and a pull channel of communications. For others, this could mean a series of newsletters / emails and a push channel of communications. Regardless the initial approach, clear expectations should be set and communications should include interactive opportunities. 
  • Secure leadership support and listen to your people. This might seem intuitive, as most initiatives are initiated by a leadership role. However, it is just as important to secure the buy-in and support from the leaders who lead all the groups and business areas affected. Another takeaway is that sometimes it doesn’t matter where the initial thought came from, as long as it is beneficial for the company. Listen to your business owners and users. For most companies, IT drives technology initiatives and owns the technology vendor relationship. However, if the Merchandising unit uncovers a new solution, for example, it should be considered even though it was not triggered by IT. This not only helps to quickly uncover business requirements but also encourages a collaborative environment.
  • Connect with people based on WIIFMs. This is one of my favorite acronyms: what’s in it for me. Yes, it sounds kind selfish at first; but when you really think about it, it makes sense. To convince someone to go down the implementation road with you, you are going to have to let him or her know why. Not just from a financial or high-level business perspective, but the affect on their daily life. Will it provide a better work / life balance? Will it empower them to make better decisions? If yes, that is a good starting position.
  • Let them be hands on. Fear of the unknown is one of the greatest obstacles of any project. If not given visibility, people tend to construct their own narratives and truth. There are many opportunities before official training and system launch that you can use to touch base with resources who do not have day-to-day visibility. At the very least, they should be able the validate process decisions and try to “break” them. Feeling more adventurous? Let your super users play in the solution environment, so they will be able to see system actions with their own eyes.
  • Know when hold ‘em, fold ‘em, walk away or run. Okay, the bad Kenny Rogers reference aside, knowing when to walk away, start over or carry on is one of the hardest decisions for the project team. With it, comes time, money and resource investment concerns; and there are times where it may be more beneficial to start over but it is not seen as an option because of these previous investments. A couple of PI Apparel attendees shared their stories of admitting defeat only to have better outcomes than expected. Pressing the “pause” button for a moment to re-strategize is not a sign of failure.

Finally, when one of the presenters was asked what would he do differently knowing what he knows now, his answer was: know your nerve center. It means looking at your company and figuring out who or what do you have to protect and / or acquiesce. Your company’s nerve center might not be as obvious as you think, but once pinched it will become painfully obvious.

*Innovation 

One of the attendees asked the question “Can someone just tell me what is the best solution out there?” Everyone clamored that there wasn’t such a thing and many factors have to be considered. You have to go through the process to select or develop the best option for you and your company. While I agree, I fear that a learning opportunity was missed. How many times have you typed in “the best ______” into a search engine? If you are being honest, there are too many times to count. Granted, you were probably using this as a starting point to create your mental list of options, but it could also cause you to overlook other options – more innovative options. There were many sessions that focused on innovative developments from 3D technologies to wearable apparel, but we were for the most part still speaking in terms of “best.” I want to emphasize at this point that I do not believe that “new” means “innovative” or I dare say “best.” In fact, several of the innovations discussed have been around for years, but now have better scalability and / or have more applicability. While learning about all of these new developments in our field, I started thinking of ways companies can become more innovative and shift from the term “best.” From my notes and quotes, I believe that Craig Crawford provided the best one-liners to summarize the three themes I landed on:

  1. “Fail fast.” This is not a new term, but had a somewhat different spin. In this forum, it meant to adapt and learn quickly. Explore and investigate no matter how “crazy” the first pass may seem and then keep it moving. This also means that you cannot take it personally; everyone has his or her own strengths and weaknesses. New ideas can come from the most unexpected places and you will likely need those strengths to see it through. 
  2. “Forget about ROI.” Surprisingly, there were no audible gasps. Not every successful innovation has to solve a problem; the example used: Instagram. Give people room to play and be creative.  Try to be driven by innovation vs. red tape. Technologies and resources have become cheaper and it might make sense to now have Innovation budget. 
  3. “Be disruptive.” During a session called “How is 3D Technology Disrupting the Fashion/Apparel/Footwear World” the panelists shared their thoughts regarding the role of 3D technology and its impact on the industry. I believe this thinking can also apply to innovation in general. Something classified as “innovative” should disrupt the market. It should push back on those who say “but we’ve always done it this way.” One of the more practical developments is PLM Mobility. It enables data to be entered at the source. Think about that for a moment. Decisions are entered while on the road or in a meeting and not duplicated again once back at one’s desk. It allows creatives to capture inspirations in real-time and integrate with other mobile apps. PLM Mobility is still looked at arm’s length by a lot of companies, but it is one of many innovations that could change and improve your business processes.

As a final thought, though we are speaking in terms of Innovation, these themes are still closely linked to “People”and should also be considered equally.

-Courtney

WhichPLM also has an in-depth summary of specific sessions presented. To learn more about PI Apparel, please visit their site. To discuss any of the above concepts or to speak with a member of Parker Avery who attended PI Apparel, please contact:
The Parker Avery Group, courtney[dot]albert[at]parkeravery[dot]com
or
Josh Pollack,  josh[dot]pollack[at]parkeravery[dot]com